PRIVATE AFFAIR: Operation of the Governor's Mansion.
First Lady Janet Huckabee and the members of two Governor’s Mansion organizations are about to spend $1.5 million on building projects on state property. The money comes from a grant from the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation, private gifts and fund-raisers. Funds raised over the last two years — including sales from the mansion’s gift shop — have gone to the tax-exempt Governor’s Mansion Association, created to fund mansion improvement and expansion.
And that’s all the public is allowed to know. How much money has the association raised? How has the money been spent to date? How exactly will the Reynolds money be used? Will plans for a 7,000-square-foot Executive Residence east of the mansion be pursued? What do the architectural plans show it will look like? What will it cost to build and maintain?
In short: What’s going on at the Arkansas Governor’s Mansion? It seems a reasonable question to ask about a publicly owned facility, staffed by public employees and maintained by public money.
But the Mansion Association won’t say, the Mansion staff won’t say, the first lady of Arkansas won’t say. If you ask, they steer questions to an entity that has nothing to do – legally — with the Association, the mansion or the mansion staff: the office of Gov. Mike Huckabee.
Inquiries by the Arkansas Times over the past two weeks have been handled by O. Milton Fine, staff legal counsel. Fine has declined to provide any records on mansion fund-raisers or mansion work, claiming they are exempt from the Freedom of Information Act because they’re the working papers of the governor. He did provide minutes from the joint meetings of the Governor’s Mansion Commission, an appointed body, and the Mansion Association, the tax-exempt organization, in which mansion improvement talks were summed up in a sentence or two.
Fine’s response ignores a state attorney general’s opinion that records maintained by a private entity, such as the Association, are open under the FOIA if it receives public support. The AG’s opinion, which responded to questions about the Razorback Foundation, said the foundation’s use of state personnel, equipment and facilities triggered the FOIA provisions.
Don Bingham, Association members acknowledge, organizes the fund-raisers and maintains the records for the nonprofit at his office in the Governor’s Mansion. Architectural plans for Mansion improvements, repairs and expansion are in his office at the mansion, which benefits from, but is not an entity of, the Association. Call any member of the Governor’s Mansion Association with a question, and you will be referred to Bingham. Treasurer Pat Torvestad, for example, couldn’t tell the Times how much money was in the Association’s account or whether the Association would meet the Dec. 31 deadline for the Reynolds grant. “Bingham does all the staff work,” she said.
But Bingham is an employee of the Governor’s Mansion, not the governor’s office, the state Department of Finance and Administration confirmed.
The Mansion Gift Shop, which is on state property and sells on-line through the state website, www.arkansas.org, is also said to be exempt from scrutiny: A spokesman for DF and A said its accounts are private.
So if you’re wondering how much Gov. Huckabee has made off sales of his four books to the gift shop or how much Don Bingham and his wife, Nancy, might have profited from the sales of their three books available there, forget it.
The Times discovered the off-limits status of the Huckabee mansion plans when it called Bingham the first week of December to ask how much money the $100-a-plate first ladies luncheon, “The Mansion Homecoming,” raised. The Nov. 17 event was touted as a fund-raiser for mansion expansion, specifically to meet the $750,000 challenge grant approved by Reynolds in 2002.
Bingham referred questions to first lady Janet Huckabee, who serves on the Association board. She told the Times the Nov. 17 event netted “somewhere between $150,000 and $160,000,” about $100,000 short of what the Association had hoped would be raised.
But Mrs. Huckabee said she did not know whether the Association had finally raised the match for the Reynolds’ grant, nor even when the challenge grant expired. “I’m sure they’ll let me know” about the deadline, she added.
Mrs. Huckabee declined to discuss specifics on how the proceeds would be used, other than to say they would benefit the mansion. She said all decisions were up to the Association “and that’s a nonprofit and I don’t have to say anything more about it.”
Asked to provide the most recent filing of the Association’s tax return, which would show what its assets were at the end of June, Mrs. Huckabee declined. Informed that the nonprofit’s returns are public under federal law, Mrs. Huckabee still declined to provide copies, saying she did not have time. After a message was left with the Association’s accountant, a copy of the Association’s 2003 tax return was faxed to the Times.
(Skip Rutherford, one of the co-hosts of the “Homecoming” luncheon, told the Times last week he’d heard the grant had been matched. Rutherford, his wife, Billie, and Martha and French Hill co-hosted the event. Then, Wednesday of this week, the Wal-Mart Foundation announced an $80,000 gift to the Mansion drive and its news release said the gift completed matching for the Reynolds Foundation grant.)
When Bingham declined to talk further about Association plans for the mansion, the Times filed an FOIA request with him, Association president Bill Gaskin and, at the mansion’s instruction, Fine. Fine responded for Bingham, citing the working papers exemption. Gaskin also replied to say the state FOI law did not apply to the nonprofit.
Richard J. Peltz, associate professor of law at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock’s William Bowen School of Law and an authority on the FOIA, called Fine’s response “a stretch.” If the governor’s working paper exemption can take in correspondence generated in agencies outside its office, “all executive agencies could say ‘we’re an agent of the governor,’ ” and claim an exemption. The mansion staff, which doesn’t report directly to the governor, is “too far to press the governor’s privilege.”
Peltz also said the Association, by turning over its records to a state government employee, has made the records public, unless they involve trade secrets. “The blame falls on the foolhardy corporation” that shares its records, he said.
The Huckabee administration has been touchy about the new residence since the Times published a story in 2002 based on information architect Gaskin readily shared after an Association meeting at the mansion. Jimmie Lou Fisher made the costly project an issue in her race for governor against Mike Huckabee that fall. In November 2002, the Times published architectural drawings for the new mansion. (Though this month’s request was denied, the drawings were released in response to the Times’ FOIA request in 2002.)
The drawings showed a brick two-story, 7,000-square-foot Georgian-style residence. They were drawn up by Gaskin’s firm, Gaskin Hill Norcross. As he is now, Gaskin was president of the Mansion Association when the plans were drawn up, and his firm was paid $243,746 for the design, the Association’s 2002 tax return (available on-line) shows.
The Times also reported in 2002 that the Association had hoped to match the recently approved Reynolds grant with $750,000 the state building authority had been awarded by the Natural and Cultural Resources Council. The grant, which has not yet been transferred to the grantee, was for an elaborate garden with temples and Italianate statuary on the mansion grounds. The Association learned later that the landscaping grant could not be used to match the Reynolds’ residence construction grant.
As of June 30, the nonprofit Association had net assets of $883,949, down from $1,022,910 at the beginning of the fiscal year, July 1, 2003. The Association’s revenue for the year, $184,016, was offset by $310,761 in unitemized expenditures for Mansion maintenance, restoration and improvement.
Gaskin confirmed in a recent conversation that there were architectural plans for the Executive Residence at both his office and the Governor’s Mansion, but he said he was told by Bingham not to release them until he’d gotten an OK from the governor’s lawyer. “I feel caught in the middle of a situation I’m in no control over,” Gaskin said. “I’ll do whatever I’m told is legal and be happy to do it,” he said.
Gaskin added that the new residence had not been a topic of conversation at Association meetings “in the past six months.”
The minutes of the Governor’s Mansion Commission released to the Times included the report from a Sept. 10, 2003, meeting in which Mrs. Huckabee discussed the potential of using geothermal energy in the new mansion.